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25 years of Thiruda Thiruda: AR Rahman's best soundtrack remains one of his most underrated

On the film's 25th anniversary (it was released on 13 November 1993), we take a look at the pioneering album that remains a favourite of radical composers like Amit Trivedi. 

Shriram Iyengar

In a 2016 interview with film critic Rajeev Masand, composer Amit Trivedi made a surprising admission about the film score that truly inspired him. "One of my friends introduced me to the album and I was awestruck by the kind of music my ears were listening to", he said, "That sound still inspires me, it makes me think how the hell can one think like this. It's fresh and still gives one the feeling of not having heard something like this before."

The soundtrack that Trivedi was praising so garrulously was from Thiruda Thiruda (1993) directed by Mani Ratnam. The film's music was composed by the now Academy award winner, A R Rahman.

A R Rahman (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

The film was only the second collaboration between Ratnam and Rahman in the nascent years of their partnership. Coming on the back of the hugely successful Roja (1992), Thiruda Thiruda was very different, almost incongruent in style, sound and structure. Perhaps, that is why the film, despite Trivedi's praise of the ingenuous soundtrack, proved to be a commercial failure. Regardless, the soundtrack remains a very popular one among fans of Tamil film music. It is also evidence to the scale and creative imagination of Rahman's composing skills.

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The composer has since become one of the most renowned names in Indian film music, winning scores of Filmfares, an Oscar and a Grammy to boot. What puts Thiruda Thiruda in the top bracket is the composer's unification of different genres of music, experimentation with ideas and the scale of his composition.

The film had 8 songs, each different from the other in style, picturization, and execution. Of these 'Konjam Nilavu' remains the most popular and continues to be heard on radio stations. Sung by Annupamaa Krishnaswami, it is filled with energy and spirit. The stylish number is an example of Rahman's understanding of the techno-electric style which was years ahead of any of his contemporaries. Boosted by the powerhouse singing of Annupamaa, who had her first major breakthrough with the album, and Suresh Peters's backup vocals, the composition is a rousing anthem to the heist film.

Of course, it is hard to ignore the very strong influence of the 1990's era Michael Jackson on Rahman. 

In contrast, 'Veerapandi Kottayile' is a heavy EDM (Electronic Dance Music) style composition that would have been just as appropriate in the current era. The song uses complex orchestration, the composer's improved skill, in a very operatic setting. The composition also shifts in tone and pace from the verse 'Nee Sollum Sollukulle', which makes it irresistible. 

PC Sriram's cinematography and the choreography of a young Prabhudeva and Raju Sundar add to the magic of the experience. 

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The standout is Rahman's use of beats to match the rhythm of Vairamuthu's lyrics. Incidentally, in Rockstar (2011), Rahman uses a folk style narrative in 'Hawwa Hawwa'. The song can trace its roots back to this number from Thiruda Thiruda, where the composer brings a very heavy rock music to match Vairamuthu's folk lyric of bravery and romance. 

Talking about rock music, the song 'Kannum Kannum', sung by Mano, captures the energy that Rahman could bring to his composition. The use of guitar riffs in this song is astounding, as is the brilliant percussion of drums that lend credibility to the lyrics of life, dreams and ambition. A statement to the impact of the song is that its opening line has become the title of the next Dulquer Salmaan-starrer, Kannum Kannum Kollayadithaal. 

Where his peers focussed on either classical melody, or rhythms, the young composer experimented with both. It was a trait that endeared Rahman to Mani Ratnam, whose previous composer, Ilaiyaraaja, had a similar tendency to experiment with music.

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Where the maestro focused on melody, Rahman would focus on the theme. In 'Thee Thee' a rousing ballad of passion, the composer builds his heavy electronic guitar riffs on a classical rhythm base. The use of the flute in the latter half of the composition comes as a surprise, and almost contravening the style, but that is how Rahman keeps it fresh. There is also an unpredictable rhythmic pattern that makes it irresistible. 

Add the sensual choreography in the visuals, and the song takes a different form. Yet, it is the music that stays long after the visuals are done. 

Talking of the differences between Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman on an interview, Mani Ratnam had said Rahman focuses on the entire theme of the film, whereas Ilaiyaraaja works on singular compositions. This explains the sense of uniformity in style and composition that one finds in Rahman's albums. Despite the touches of experimentation, Rahman is very disciplined in not veering away from the subject matter of his films. 

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Thiruda Thiruda was a heist tale of two street smart robbers being trapped in a heist that is far above their dreams. Throw in a rogue village girl escaping her fate, and another alluring seductress looking for the payday of her life, the film becomes one of Mani Ratnam's most experimental one. 

Rahman delivered a score that matched its subject. Take 'Rasathi' for example. The song, perhaps, is the first to use acapella in Tamil music. Sung by the late Shahul Hameed, the song captures the element of viraha (separation) that is beautifully articulated through music. 

Each song captures a different emotion. For instance 'Putham Pudhu Bhoomi' is a happy, optimistic track sung by KS Chitra and Mano. The song also has a very unique Western style orchestration that makes it different to the others in the album. Do notice the very operatic vocals to provide the emphasis on this 'ode to joy'. 

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In all, the composer delivered five tracks in an album of eight songs that were considered the best of their times. In the same year, Nadeem-Shravan won the Filmfare award for Best Music for Deewana (1992). The album was filled with melody and harmony that was the standard of 1990's Hindi cinema. Yet, compared to Rahman's wild experimentation, Deewana feels a little safe in its style and treatment. 

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The commercial failure of Thiruda Thiruda meant that Mani Ratnam never chose such a wild experimentation in music. At least not till the latest Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018). While it is not in the same range, Rahman brings back different elements — the operatic style, orchestration, rock and folk — in the album. 

Yet, it does not match the enthusiasm and energy of a young composer in Thiruda Thiruda.